Bow to the Masters: Tolkien

Bow to the Masters is a series of posts that will feature fantasy authors that I think are tha bomb. These are authors that inspired me to write my own fantasy tales, those I’ve learned from, those I respect. So, these posts have no objective viewpoint. Sorry about that. But I can’t go into robot mode when I’m passionate about something.

This first post is dedicated to the Grand Master of our Order. Yep. You can’t get by in the fantasy world without mentioning the Master: J.R.R. Tolkien. And I’ll probably come back to him. Often. Because.

You don’t need me to tell you what he wrote. You know what he wrote. Everyone knows what he wrote. But it wasn’t always so.

When I was first handed a battered copy of The Lord of the Rings (LoTR) by my father (with the 1970’s animation film cover), it was years before Peter Jackson’s movies. In fact when I recommended this book to all my schoolmates, they were like: “Tolkien – didn’t he write War and Peace? Why are you reading that stuff?”

Well, thank the Valar, that’s changed. And since the movies in the cinemas and the Lego merchandise, everyone knows who Tolkien is.

Point made, right? Go read your copy of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings again. I’ll just wait here.

Hey, welcome back. Wasn’t that an awesome read? Yes, yes it was.

However, my personal favorite book by Tolkien is by far: The Silmarillion (edited by Tolkien’s son Christopher). Why?

I can ramble on for hours on the total epicness of The Silmarillion, but I want this post to focus on one point in particular.

World Building.

The Silmarillion is a lesson in world building. It took the whole of Tolkien’s life to write it and much of his son Christopher’s life to edit it into shape. But it showcases a richness of detail that makes a new reading of LoTR so much better because you have all the epic scope of the narrative in view. You see the characters and their story differently (Gandalf is worth a mention aka Olorin; also the lineage of Aragorn, the once and future King, so to say) because they are finally set in context.

The world of Arda has mythological depth and has been – correctly – compared to and deconstructed from all kinds of myths and legends, especially the norse legends. In fact, you don’t need me to tell you that Tolkien himself saw his writing as the attempt to create a mythology for an England which the Normans hadn’t invaded. (Go check Tom Shippey’s interview on LoTR’s Extended Edition again.) An Anglo-Saxon mythology. Beowulf on horses.

It’s pure “what might have been.” Fantasy.

I love that thought. And I believe that all fantasy is so much better when the world building is as thorough as that. But I don’t know whether it can ever be that. Because Tolkien spent his ENTIRE life writing that mythology.

Which to my mind makes The Silmarillion stand alone. It cannot be rivaled by contemporary fantasy writers. It cannot. (See, told you this wasn’t objective.) And that’s why when people write something like Soandso (insert your favorite fantasy author here) is “the next Tolkien” or “the American Tolkien,” I hate it. I HATE IT!

That tagline is the worst! And it’s so wrong! You cannot be the next Tolkien if you don’t bow to the awesome uniqueness of The Silmarillion. And if someone should ever call you the “next Tolkien”, then start RANTING immediately!

I now give you the one author who can match Tolkien in scope:

Homer.

Yeah, let it sink in. Homer – The Illiad, The Odyssey. That Homer.

How so?

The Archaic Period in Ancient Greek History was a phase of integration in which three major processes came together:

  • the integration of the idea of one people
  • the communication and equalizing of the ways people traded, worked, thought, and lived
  • the idea of a state

The prerequisite for that? Everyone speaks the same language. The first piece of (European) literature in that common language was Homer’s Illiad (around 750 before Common Era) and The Odyssey (about one generation later).

But for the ancient Greeks these two works were not the poetic fiction we see them as – no, to them it was lived History. Homer’s tales gave them an idea of a common history. It was woven into the very fabric of their culture (hello, politics!), and I don’t have to tell you that Homer built a central canon of Gods and Goddesses that everyone knew and recognized as their own.

Think about this. It’s a major point. Before, every town had their local deity, worshipped in their own temple by their own customs. Homer made them generalized enough to fit the entire Archaic world. Example: Athena was the local deity of Athens. After the publication of The Illiad, everyone who spoke Greek knew Athena and could worship her as the Goddess of Wisdom (and War) – instead of the Goddess of Athens. Mindblowing accomplishment for an author.

Point? Application? Tolkien’s Silmarillion is just that; poetic fiction that in a different age might have become what he wrote it as: a common, accepted, and applied history of a people.

That’s world building.

That’s the mark anyone after Tolkien has had to reach. It’s a piece of art that I don’t think we’ll see the likes of soon.

On an conciliatory note, there are many good fantasy authors out there. But the “next Tolkien”? I don’t think so.

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